Book review: Les prisons de la misère

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of a review published in Punishment & Society 3(2):307-309, 2001. Also as pdf.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2001 Review of ‘Les Prisons de la Misère,’ by Loic Wacquant. Punishment and Society 3(2):307-309.

In Les prisons de la misère (Prisons of Poverty), Loïc Wacquant explores aspects of the contemporary style of punishment and policing in the United States and how its basic principles have also been adopted in Europe. This French-language book is published in the series ‘Raisons d’Agir’ (Reasons to Act), which accompanies the collective by the same name founded by Pierre Bourdieu in the Winter of 1995. This intellectual association is devoted to develop analyses and criticisms that go against the dominant socio-political and economic discourse. It hopes to form a ‘circle of reason’ to promote a sphere of cultural autonomy against the invasion of economic forces, particularly in terms of the devastating effects of neoliberal policies. Because I have reservations about the limited appeal of such a project, I did not anticipate a favorable review of Wacquant’s book. However, upon reading this work, I stand corrected about its merits, for Wacquant has produced a very useful manifesto that should be of interest to a broad range of social scientists.

Wacquant’s short book is divided in two sections. In the first part, Wacquant discusses the diffusion of U.S. practices of police and punishment to Europe. The contemporary mode of criminal justice in the United States is generally marked by a get-tough approach that centers on urban decay, juvenile misconduct, and other moral panics. More than a discourse about crime, Wacquant argues, this new penality involves a redefinition of the state, which has withdrawn from the economic arena, reduced its social role, and enlarged its penal intervention. Discussing how U.S. criminal justice has gradually invaded Europe, Wacquant particularly unravels the role played by neoliberal think tanks and various leading figures and movements in public policy, such as the conservative Manhattan Institute, the reorganization of policing in New York City, and other aspects of the zero tolerance programs that have brought about a dramatic increase in the U.S. incarceration rate (despite the relatively stable crime rates). Wacquant analyzes how policies similar to those applied in the United States have also managed to infiltrate European criminal justice. Remarkably, the adoption of a zero tolerance approach in Europe has gone on at a time when the approach has increasingly faced criticisms in the United States (for instance, after the Amadou Diallo incident).

In the second part of this book, Wacquant further clarifies the new criminal justice policies in the United States and how European authorities have been tempted to adopt its basic elements. The central characteristics of the prison state that has replaced the welfare state are specified as: 1) a vertical expansion of the system: the U.S. prison population has grown exponentially, resulting in a prison rate that is 5 to 10 times higher than in the countries of Europe; 2) a horizontal expansion of the penal net: punishment has diversified into a plethora of measurements, such as probation, parole, and boot camps; 3) the elaboration of a ‘big government’ of punishment: the penal sector has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry; 4) growth of the private punishment market: with the rise of private prisons, incarceration has become commodified; and 5) a prison policy of affirmative action: ethnic minorities are disproportionately overrepresented in punishment. With these developments, the prison does not merely control crime; it regulates the free market (imprisoning the poor and the unemployed) and the racial order (incarcerating ethnic minorities).

The case of the United States is not entirely particular, for in Europe, too, the prison population has increased during the 1990s (though it still remains much lower than in the USA). Similar to the situation in the U.S., the rise in imprisonment in Europe went hand in hand with a deterioration of the labor market. And immigrants and people of color are also overrepresented in the European prison system. In conclusion, Wacquant maintains that while cultural preferences and political decisions in the United States have clearly gone in the direction of a criminalization of poverty, Europe is presently at the crossroads and can still choose.

With Les prisons de la misère, Loïc Wacquant has produced a remarkable little book that offers much food for thought in the very best penological tradition that stretches from Durkheim over Rusche and Kirchheimer to Foucault. Though relatively brief, this book answers many questions and, even more so, opens up new avenues of research. There are particularly two issues which, I feel, beg for a more detailed analysis. First, Wacquant offers elements and instances in the adoption of U.S. penality in Europe, but he has not really clarified the mechanisms of this diffusion process. Wacquant gives us fragments of a story yet to be told and mostly presents anecdotal evidence. Though I understand the methodological difficulties, a more careful analysis is needed of the players, conditions, and methods of the import/export of neoliberal doctrines and practices of criminal justice.

Second, the underlying and often repeated argument of this book posits, but never proves an intimate relationship between the abolition of the economic state, the lowering of the social state, and the expansion of the penal state. As such, this work appears to blindly rely on the assumption that developments in penality are determined by the dictates of a political economy gone rampant. Such a view may neglect the bureaucratic forces of the professional expert institutions of police and punishment, analysis of which might reveal developments more independent from the excesses of neoliberalism in the political and economic arenas.

I still have my reservations about the prospects of a new cultural Europe rescued by Bourdieu and his disciples. Instead of relying on the particularistic and somewhat Europe-centric foundations of such a project, I would instead argue for the exploitation of an open-ended flow of communication, the contours of which would not have to be delineated by the praxeological fears of a neoliberal invasion, but which would remain open to continually define and redefine its contents and objectives. Still, one cannot but applaud the fact that Bourdieu and his followers reject positivist detachment and postmodern pose alike to recognize and practice the normative dimension of the intellectual. For this reason and more, Wacquant’s book is a most welcome addition to the serious penological literature.

Readers may wish to know that some of Wacquant’s writings on punishment, including parts of this book, are available in English translation in Punishment & Society (October 1999, January 2001), in European Societies (Fall 1999), and online at:,,, &